Out of His Own Time

A Man of Misconceptionsby John Glassie

Riverhead Books. 352p $26.95

Athanasius Kircher was a German Jesuit who taught, wrote and ran a museum at the Roman College in the mid-1600s. He was famous in his time, sought out and consulted. His more than 40 books, folio-sized and thick, were rich in engraved illustrations. They covered subjects from magnetism to light and sound, from languages to Egyptology, from China to Italian geography. His popular museum gathered specimens sent to Rome by missionaries in Asia, Africa and America. But he made mistakes, and some dismissed him as a fraud.


A decade and a half ago, Athanasius Kircher was attracting a good deal of interest, occasioned partly by the fourth centenary of his birth in 1601 (perhaps 1602). An exhibition in Rome let visitors experience what his museum had been like. Libraries at the University of Chicago and Stanford University mounted exhibitions of his books; and Stanford contributed to a Kircher Correspondence Project, making available his voluminous letters. Scholarly works appeared. And the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles opened an exhibition devoted to Kircher. A piece in the New York Times on May 25, 2002, noted that this “Postmodernist of the 1600’s” was “Back in Fashion.”

Scholars generally appreciated Kircher’s curiosity and his contributions without overstating his importance. His science was weak, and he made no significant discoveries. His deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics was simply wrong. Still, he inspired the young Leibnitz, gave Egyptology a start and investigated the earth’s workings by descending into Mount Vesuvius.

In A Man of Misconceptions, John Glassie works from a basic chronological frame to study Kircher from his accident-prone youth in Germany to his young Jesuit years that eventually landed him in Rome, to his many scholarly pursuits and huge output of books. He also situates Kircher among the people of his time: popes and royals and scientists. Glassie clearly has command of the scholarship and of primary sources in translation, sometimes helped by a classics teacher at his high school, Georgetown Prep. This book serves the general reader as a useful introduction.

Where recent scholars have regularly balanced Kircher’s accomplishments against obvious mistakes, the author here seems to highlight the quirky and the odd in his subject, and a nagging negativity marks this study. Were Kircher’s mistakes honest ones? In his work on Egyptian hieroglyphics, did he think he was right or was it pure fraud? Yes, he was wrong in his theories of magnetism; but so too— Glassie notes—was Descartes in his.

This critique of Kircher involves much speculation. Kircher installed a speaking tube to communicate from his room to the entrance of the Roman College; the author calls this “an eavesdropping device” and wonders if it was due to paranoia. Kircher’s childhood included the experience of war: perhaps early memories did not last, but “it’s more likely that memories from those early years never left him. And they probably contributed to the conceptual all-inclusiveness....” Jesuit censors found problems in one of his texts, but they were largely ignored “with the approval of the superior general.” This is explained: “The reasons no doubt have to do with the power and prestige of Kircher’s patrons.” No doubt? No documentation!

The text strains to find the exotic. Thus the Roman College “had an apothecary for making everything from candle wax to the herbal concoctions that chaste Jesuits took to dampen sexual desire.” No documentary source is given for this; is it more speculation? Gaspar Schott, who worked with Kircher in Rome, is sent “all the way back to Germany”; is this really so far? In relating attempts “to collect what would now be called scientific data on a worldwide basis,” the text states that “not every venue had the right instruments or the right expertise; one Jesuit in Lithuania who sent in variation readings [in magnetism] worked as the cook in his college.”

The scholarly source cited for this fact names the Jesuit, Oswald Krüger, who taught in Vilnius, where the Jesuit school had a famous observatory that one can visit today. Krüger also wrote scientific texts. He had the instruments and the expertise.

Small mistakes occur in Latin and in some details. The Jesuit novitiate in Paderborn was not a “seminary.” Travelers from Cologne to Koblenz go up the Rhine, not down. A conclave is mistakenly called an “enclave.” The procession to celebrate Queen Christina’s arrival in Rome included “the entire College of Cardinals, in magenta robes....” Would any proud prelate exchange his cardinal’s red for magenta?

The writing style, too, raises some issues. The general use of contractions—wasn’t, hadn’t, he’d—lend a casual, less than scholarly tone. And some stabs at humor diminish the work. After Kircher credits Jesus’ mother Mary for some intercessory help, the text speculates: “The Virgin Mary may have taken a more laissez-faire position on other matters.” Or in describing shelters for plague victims, the text states: “If you went in, the chances of dying, and staying dead, were high.”

The book has its merits. Early on, there is a good capsule history of the Jesuits. The text acknowledges Kircher’s role as a “central contact and clearinghouse for Jesuit findings and reports on all manner of natural philosophy subjects.” The treatment of the way the Royal Society of London reacted to Kircher comes as a relief from the negativity, as does Glassie’s report of Kircher’s early influence on Leibnitz, which did not last. And when the text reaches the end of Kircher’s life, it grows almost rueful, sympathetic. The author’s acknowledgements too show affection for his subject.

The reader knows a lot about the book right from the start. The upside-down portrait of Kircher on the dust jacket signals that something is off. And the ambiguous title, A Man of Misconceptions, prompts the question: Are the misconceptions in Kircher’s mind, or are they misconceptions about him? Well, both, it turns out. Maybe sometimes one can tell a book by its cover.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Colm Tóibín may have you reaching for your abandoned copy of "The Importance of Being Earnest" or "Dubliners," even if you have not touched those books since high school.
Emma Winters March 22, 2019

“No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in ”Androcles and the Lion,” “than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus.” Shaw’s line captures the outsize and frankly uneasy influence that St. Paul had on the early church.

Daniel LuzerMarch 22, 2019
Are conspiracy theorists just trying to maintain their empires and hawk merchandise? Am I a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorists?
Brandon SanchezMarch 19, 2019
Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in ‘The Bells of St. Mary‘s’ (photo: Alamy)
Crosby was the most Catholic superstar the United States has ever seen.
John AndersonMarch 08, 2019